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Graffiti case shows Tunisia's new battle with free speech

Previously, public spaces in Tunisia were the preserve of state-sponsored performances. Now they are being used by artists to criticise the lack of progress in the two years since the revolution.

Tunisia, it turns out, does not consider political graffiti a public order offence, nor "harmful to the state of emergency".

Five months after being charged with just that - for graffiti that read, "The people want rights for the poor" in the industrial city of Gabes - two men from the art collective "Zwewla" were last week cleared in court. Named in Tunisian Arabic for "the poor", this art collective called the trial "an infringement of freedom of expression".

This is just one in a series of charges brought against Tunisian artists and musicians.

The rapper Weld El 15 went into hiding, though that did not stop him receiving a two-year jail sentence, in absentia, for a song criticising the police. A cameraman and actress were both given six month suspended sentences for their involvement in the same track, which called the police "dogs".

Meanwhile, two artists face sentences of up to five years for harming public order and morals over their work, featured in an art exhibition just outside Tunis last year.

Nadia Jelassi and Mohamed Ben Slama both became the focus of ultrareligious protest at a spring arts festival: artworks were vandalised, death threats were issued as the country experienced some of its worse riots since 2011 over the exhibition, with hardline protesters setting police stations and other government buildings on fire.

It all looks like a new frontier for political conflict, as the Islamist-led coalition government applies old regime-era laws to a new-found freedom of expression. Tunisian arts - particularly as public display, in the form of street dance, theatre or graffiti - have become more visible in the years after the revolution which ousted the Western-backed dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

Previously, public spaces were the preserve of state-sponsored performances; now they are being used by some artists - such as Zwewla - to criticise the lack of progress in the two years since.

"Their graffiti wasn't anything supposed to be forbidden - it wasn't violent or obscene, but just the social reality of unemployment," says Selima Karoui, visual artist, university art teacher and journalist with Tunisian collective blog, Nawaat.

"It was about creating awareness of this issue, and that isn't a good thing for people in power."

Indeed these are themes that often emerge in new Tunisian culture, because the are expressions of broader public concern: late last month, a Tunis street vendor died after setting himself on fire - a stark replica of the actions of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose actions two years ago sparked the Tunisian revolution.

Unemployment in Tunisia runs at 17 per cent, rising to 30 per cent in the country's neglected interior and among its educated youth. The government faces rising criticism over a failure to create more work, tackle escalating prices or deal with the straitjacket of public debt.

The trouble is that the government, led by the Islamist Ennahda party, is seen as biased in coming down hard on cultural protest while doing nothing about the escalating instances of political violence - which culminated in the assassination of opposition figure Chokri Belaid in February.

A report released by Human Rights Watch days before that killing had warned about the rise in assaults on journalists, intellectuals, artists and human rights activists by "individuals or groups who appeared to be motivated by a religious agenda".

The report states that victims of such assaults filed reports at police stations that seemed "unwilling or unable to find or arrest the alleged attackers". In Tunisia, there's a feeling - which Ennahda needs to dispel, with action - that the party panders to ultrareligious Salafi groups on the streets, whose agenda is not entirely disagreeable to the Islamist party in power.

And while some of the opposition to Ennahda may just be a knee-jerk hostility informed by years of enforced secularism under the former regime, there is a growing need to address genuine grievances to stop this discontent cementing into a deep division within Tunisia.

In the sphere of cultural expression, some Tunisians think that, in the recent legal affronts to free speech, the government has simply misjudged the public mood.

"People are different now," says Rim Temimi, a photographer whose images on the Tunisian uprisings were sent around the world. "The government is out of touch - you cannot control Tunisians with these things anymore."


Rachel Shabi is a journalist and the author of Not the Enemy - Israel's Jews from Arab Lands

On Twitter: @Rachshabi

Updated: April 26, 2013 04:00 AM



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